Juneteenth: History and Celebration

Juneteenth is a federally recognized holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, many enslaved people in Texas learned that the Civil War had ended and that they were emancipated from slavery. The term, Juneteenth, combines both June and nineteenth in one word.

In summer 2021, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, making Juneteenth an official U.S. federal holiday. In his proclamation speech, President Biden remarked, “On Juneteenth, we recommit ourselves to the work of equity, equality, and justice.”

It’s the first new holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was enacted by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and becomes the 12th federal holiday recognized by the U.S. federal government. The new law, which took effect on January 1, 2022, made June 19 as a paid day off for all federal employees and a school holiday when it falls on a weekday. Because it falls on Sunday in 2022, the first paid state holiday for Juneteenth will be in 2023.

The driving force behind making Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday is Opal Lee, a retired teacher and activist in the Juneteenth movement. Lee campaigned for decades, saying, "It's going to be a national holiday, I have no doubt about it. My point is let's make it a holiday in my lifetime." In June 2021, at the age of 94, her efforts succeeded. As she sat in the front row in the East Room of the White House witnessing history being made, she received a standing ovation by those in attendance.

It was not an easy road making Juneteenth a national holiday. In 1861, the newly elected President Abraham Lincoln wasn’t seeking to abolish slavery at first, but he grew concerned with the spread of slavery to the new states and territories in the American West.

As the United States continued its expansion westward, each new state shifted power between the anti-slavery northern states and the South. Southern states began to fear they would lose all of their rights. Since the South relied on slave labor to work their profitable cotton fields and the North believed slavery to be abhorrent, the differences between the two sides grew to a great divide.

In 1861, Lincoln was elected without being on the ballot in the southern states. The South no longer wanted to be part of the United States, so they seceded and formed a new country, The Confederate States of America. Lincoln sent troops to force the southern states to rejoin the Union and on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired upon Union forces at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina marking the beginning of the bloodiest four years in American history.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring, “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free." The American Civil War would continue for two more years after Emancipation until General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 Confederate troops to the Union Army’s General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the war. 

The news of the surrender and the war ending took time to reach everyone. The United States had 34 states before the Civil War. At the time, Texas was the farthest state to the west and therefore the last Confederate slave-owning state. So, on June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger marched his 2,000 federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps to the port of Galveston, Texas, and delivered General Order No. 3, "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." The Civil War and slavery were finally over.

Now, over 100 years later, we have many ways to celebrate Juneteenth.

1. Attend a Local Juneteenth Event

Downtown Ypsilanti will host a Juneteenth Celebration from June 16-18, 2023. Admission is free.

2. Visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

The museum’s mission is to celebrate and honor African American history and culture. Check their website for programming details.

3. Make a Recipe in Honor of African American Cuisine

Meals, Music, and Muses – A symphonic composition full of stories and contemporary southern recipes that celebrates the food and musical genres that influenced the history of America.

Watermelon & Red Birds – The very first cookbook to celebrate Juneteenth, from food writer and cookbook author Nicole A. Taylor—who draws on her decade of experiences observing the holiday.

4.  Read Books and Watch Movies about Juneteenth

Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen – A breathtaking collection of original portraits depicting Black heroes—both famous and unsung—who made their mark on activism, science, politics, business, medicine, technology, food, arts, entertainment and more. Each entry includes a lush drawing or painting by artist George McCalman, along with an insightful essay summarizing the individual's life story.

General Gordon Granger – This biography sheds fascinating new light on a colorful commander who fought through the Civil War from its first major battles to its last and left an impact on the Reconstruction.

Juneteenth: A Novel – Shot on the Senate floor by a young Black man, a dying racist senator summons an elderly Black Baptist minister from Oklahoma to his side for a remarkable dialogue that reveals the deeply buried secrets of their shared past and the tragedy that reunites them.

Juneteenth: The Story Behind the Celebration – Using decades of research in archives around the nation, this book helps separate myth from reality and tells the story behind the celebration in a way that provides new understanding and appreciation for the event.

Miss Juneteenth – Turquoise Jones is a single mom who holds down a household, a rebellious teenager, and pretty much everything that goes down at her job. She's also a bona fide beauty queen—once crowned the winner of the "Miss Juneteenth" pageant. Life didn't turn out as beautifully as the title promised, but Turquoise, determined to right her wrongs, is cultivating her daughter, Kai, to become Miss Juneteenth, even if Kai wants something else.

On Juneteenth – The essential, sweeping story of Juneteenth's integral importance to American history, as told by a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Texas native Annette Gordon-Reed.